*Right after Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Richard Pryor and other legends finished filming the theatrical version of the Broadway phenomenon The Wiz, released in 1978, Motown Records sent Ross back to the studio to record an album of all of the musical’s songs — including those sung by her cast mates.
The album was to have been called “Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz”, and was scheduled for release in early 1979 as a companion piece to the movie’s Quincy Jones-produced soundtrack album.
The film itself was mired in controversy before filming began, with critics savaging Motown for casting a 33-year-old Ross as the The Wiz’ 24-year-old Dorothy.
The movie was generally panned upon its release, and it under-performed at the box office. Motown subsequently cancelled the release of the companion Ross album.
With the passage of time, annual holiday showings on BET and other networks, and the deaths of most of the principal cast (including Michael Jackson in 2009), the theatrical version of The Wiz is viewed differently today. As NBC readies a December 3 live broadcast of a new production of the musical, Motown Universal has dusted off and remastered Ross’ original 1978 recordings. “Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz” will be released, for the first time, on November 27.
This album is one of the most dynamic of Ross’ 50+ year career. The new release includes a beautiful booklet with never-before-published photos of Ross, and a new essay written by the reissue’s producers Andrew Skurow, George Solomon, and Harry Weinger.
The original album was produced by Ross herself, veteran Motown executive Suzanne de Passe, and Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer and arranger Lee Holdridge, who had written the arrangement for her #1 smash “Do You Know Where You’re Going To?”. Holdridge told me he was surprised to hear that the songs he produced for Ross almost 40 years ago are finally being released.
“I remember doing the tracks for her,” Holdridge recalled by phone. “As was so common at that time, we did rhythm tracks first and then she came in and put her voice down. I had pleasant conversations with her, and she was a joy to work with. But there was some craziness going on between her and the record company, she wasn’t happy about a lot of things, and she was in a terrible mood when we recorded those songs.”
If the Academy Award-nominated Ross was in a snit when she recorded the songs for “Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz”, it’s a testament to her acting ability that you’d never know it by listening to the album. The legend delivers bravura performances of many of the songs that were more restrained on the soundtrack, like “Is This What Feeling Gets?” and “Can I Go On?”, while lending her legendary voice for the first time to songs like “He’s The Wizard” and “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News.”
On some of the album’s songs, like the Trio Medley including “You Can’t Win”, “Slide Some Oil To Me”, and “I’m A Mean Ol’ Lion”, Ross almost inhabits the characters of the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, respectively. In other cases, like “Be A Lion” and “Believe In Yourself”, Ross outdoes her own impressive work on the original soundtrack, with the former song featuring a gospel-inspired trio accompaniment as the singer delivers a stunning vocal.
The album’s version of “Is This What Feeling Gets?” features a stripped down, exposed and vulnerable Ross with a solo piano accompaniment, and hearing the recording for the first time gave me chills. Similarly, Ross’ alternate take on The Wiz’s showstopper, “Home,” is nothing less than breathtaking.
The “lost” album also includes a bonus track of sorts: the previously-unheard “Wonder Wonder Why”, which was written for the original Broadway production but cut from the show before its opening night in 1975. It’s long been rumored that Ross recorded the song for The Wiz, but until now it’s never seen the light of day. Ross gives “Wonder Wonder Why” her all, and the results are Grammy-worthy.
According to longtime Ross biographer J. Randy Taraborrelli, no one should be surprised to hear Ross give everything she had on “Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz”.
“The first time I heard these recordings,” Taraborrelli reminisced, “I was blown away by them because they sounded like completely unrestricted Diana Ross performances. She didn’t have to adhere to the parameters of her character in the movie or of the Quincy Jones productions on the soundtrack, or to any parameters. That’s what fans are going to love about this album: it’s a full-on, unrestricted, unfettered Diana Ross performance that’s never been heard by the general public.”
Speaking of Quincy Jones, he would agree with Taraborrelli about Ross’ performance of the songs from The Wiz. At the time of the movie’s release he wrote of Ross’ work on the soundtrack “She was singing a minor third higher than she’s ever sung in her life. Diana Ross is the hardest working performer I’ve ever worked with and just as beautiful a person. I really think that…Diana’s moving reading of the songs…[supplies] the moments we needed for the film.”
“Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz” is a stunning addition to any Ross, Motown, R & B, pop, or musical theater fan’s music collection. But more than that, it’s a previously forgotten, unheard project from one of entertainment’s true icons. I asked Taraborrelli whether we could look forward to more of Ross’ unheard treasures, or those of other Motown legends.
“I actually know what’s in store, but I can’t share,” Taraborrelli teased. “But I can say this: there’s a lot of stuff! There are Diana Ross & the Supremes songs in the vaults that fans have not heard yet, and the same holds true for pretty much all of the artists at Motown. If the fans continue to demand the material, and be vocal about it, then it will surface.”
“Some Motown fans are against the notion of digital releases,” Taraborrelli continued. “They demand CD releases, and they’ve made an issue of this by saying that they’re not buying any product that’s not released on CD. That’s not the position to take. By not supporting this album, or any of the other digital releases that have come out of Motown, the message that’s being sent is that nobody wants this stuff.”
“Those of us of a certain age are going to just have to surrender to the fact that CDs are on the way out, and there’s nothing we can do about that,” Taraborrelli continued, “the same way we had to surrender to the fact that we weren’t going to be able to get our vinyl or our cassette tapes. If we draw a line in the sand and say we’re not buying digital releases, we’re not going to get ANY releases.”
If “Diana Ross Sings Songs From The Wiz” is indicative of the quality of previously-unreleased material we have to look forward to from Motown, I couldn’t care less WHAT format they’re released in! If you’re a fan of the 1978 film, or you want something new to listen to as you wait for the December 3 live broadcast of NBC’s new production, download a copy of this album on November 27 and prepare to have your mind blown by the original diva.
Michael P. Coleman (pictured) is a freelance writer who lives in Sacramento, California. But in his heart, he’ll always be a Detroiter. Michael has a BA with High Honors and Distinction in Communications from the University of Michigan. He is a regular contributor to EURThisNThat.com and sacculturalhub.com. Connect with him at michaelpcoleman.com, and follow him on Twitter.